What to cut or keep is always a tough call

SINGAPORE - I grew up reading the comics pages in The Straits Times and I understand the sense of loss that readers felt when The Straits Times reduced the number of comic strips in the paper from Sept 1.

Some readers thought that we had made the cuts to make room for advertisements; others thought that we were trying to cut costs. A few readers accused us of losing our sense of humour.

It is true that newsprint is expensive and newspaper space is finite, while editorial demands keep growing. Life! is the features section of the paper that covers the arts, entertainment and lifestyle and these sectors have grown tremendously in the past 10 years.

To cite a few examples, there were an estimated 37 local theatre productions in 2001. Last year, the number swelled to about 70, keeping Corrie Tan, our main theatre reviewer, very busy indeed.

Music lovers used to count themselves lucky if a big pop star swung by once in a while to play here. This year, the big-name acts who would be performing or have performed in Singapore include Tony Bennett, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Metallica, Robert Plant, Jay Chou, Mayday and Girls' Generation.

The rich cultural and lifestyle pickings mean that every day, we have to make decisions about what to put into the paper and what to leave out.

The Life! editorial team receives scores of requests every day from newsmakers and organisers to cover an event, interview someone or review a performance or exhibition. We do not - it is impossible anyway - cover everything.

In deciding what to cover, we look at the newsworthiness, the relevance and the "entertainment" value of any proposed story.

This competition for space is not only among stories with a Singapore origin. The Straits Times is not a parochial paper and Life! also publishes wire stories on cultural and lifestyle events and trends overseas.

Every story that appears in Life! has to earn its space in the paper and the rule applies to the comic strips too. We are not saying that comics are not important and we know that the funny pages have a loyal following.

That is why we are still keeping the funnies, and have not, as some readers claim, done away with them altogether, as some major newspapers elsewhere have.

A quick check of some major newspapers in Britain found that The Sunday Times and The Independent on Sunday do not carry cartoons while the weekday editions of The Guardian carry just one comic strip.

After weighing our editorial priorities, we decided to free up some comics space to pack in more editorial content.

In last Friday's issue of Life! for example, the space that would have been occupied by comics was given to reviews of pop, classical music and jazz albums. In the Sept 1 issue of SundayLife!, we used the freed-up comics space to launch an eight-part travel series on more unusual or relatively unknown holiday destinations.

Editing is an art, not a science. An editor has to keep his or her pulse on what is happening in society, find out what readers are excited about and satisfy their hunger for news, information and entertainment.

The string of sold-out pop concerts and performances and the 62,000 visitors who visited a recent travel fair and the $98 million worth of bookings made - all these indicate that there is demand for stories related to entertainment and travel.

The decision to cut comics was not taken lightly. We know that some readers would disagree with our editorial decisions but we think that the two comic strips in Life! Monday to Saturday and one full page of comics in SundayLife! will still give readers a rich buffet of news and entertainment.

This is an ongoing effort. We will keep monitoring readers' interests - and feedback - and adjust our content in response.

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